Commonwealth Journal

November 21, 2013

Northern Middle students get a reality check on life

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — It’s hard enough for adults to learn the ins and outs of car payments, mortgages, bills, health care costs, and child care expenses.

So imagine how difficult juggling the necessities of everyday life looks to 12- and 13-year-olds.

“I won’t be able to do a whole lot that I wanted to do,” said student Rachel Blevins, 12, during Northern Middle School’s popular “Reality Town” program. “I learned I will have to spend my money wisely.”

Blevins and the rest of Northern Middle School’s 7th grade population on Wednesday underwent a reality check of sorts, thanks to a program that has been offered to the students for 15 years now.

“We’re just giving them a dose of reality,” said Kathy Sampson, youth services center coordinator with Northern Middle.

When the students step foot into the school gym, they leave middle school and enter a very adult-looking world of banks, car payments, child care, health care costs, unexpected expenses, mortgages, groceries and utility bills, and even “Uncle Sam” himself — think taxes, taxes, and more taxes.

“Um, they took a lot,” said Blevins, about the piece of the pie the federal and state governments took from her paycheck.

Many would assume that students would choose careers that could endow them with a high income, but that’s not the case, said Sampson. The students are given career options based on their individual learning plans and grades, and only those with the highest GPAs can choose the higher incomes. For example, if a student wishes to be a doctor, he or she must have a 4.0 GPA.

The students are also given a small amount of income from their “spouses,” and they’re assigned a certain number of children before they begin their “Reality Town” journeys.

Students must pay their taxes first, and from there they choose homes and cars.

“Their favorite booth is always the ‘Car Lot,’” said Sampson, “But you’ll see they always choose the cheapest car.”

Volunteers Barbara Burton, Julia Rogers, and Alice Ping, who helped with one of two “Car Lot” booths, noticed immediately that students were shocked at the difference in what vehicles they wanted compared to what they could afford.

“They change their minds pretty quickly,” said Rogers. “They pick a nicer car, then they go to the childcare booth and then they have to come back to us.”

After cars and houses comes health insurance. This year students were able to opt out of health insurance — even though they risk going into massive debt should they run into an unexpected health care expense — but Sampson said that will have to change.

The Affordable Care Act, which mandates that citizens obtain health insurance, will require that students pick up health insurance during next year’s “Reality Town.”

Students also must figure out their utility bills and grocery costs, and only after the necessities are taken care of can they visit the “Entertainment” and “Contributions” booths. Some of the time, though, students have to stop at the “S.O.S.” booth when they run out of money before their expenses are even covered.

“It has been enlightening,” said Burton, about her first experience volunteering for the program. “These kids are so smart ... and the questions they ask. One boy asked about interest rates.”

Sampson said “Reality Town” has proven to be one of the most authentic learning opportunities for the students, and she says volunteers and kids alike enjoy the program.

“I have never gotten anything negative back on this,” said Sampson. “The volunteers love it, the teachers love it ... the kids get an eye-opener.”

That’s exactly what the program is intended to do.

“It’s reality,” said Burton. “It’s what their parents have to do.”